Cuban crackdown

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

Alarmed by the increase in espionage and terrorist activities encouraged by the United States, Cuba cracks down on dissidents and criminals.

CUBA has finally cracked down on the United States-sponsored "dissidents" and criminal elements on its territory. In the first week of April, a special court sentenced 36 Cubans for "working with a foreign power to undermine the government". They were given prison sentences ranging from six to 28 years under laws framed in 1999. In all, 78 Cuban nationals were put on trial.

In separate proceedings, three Cubans with criminal records, who were involved in the armed hijacking of a passenger ferry boat, were given the death penalty by the Provincial Court of Havana. The Supreme Court upheld the verdict. The final appeal was heard by the Council of State, presided over by President Fidel Castro. After discussing the matter for more than seven hours, the Council upheld the verdict. According to Cuban officials, the difficult decision had to be taken to prevent any catastrophic incidents involving hijacking in the future.

Ten youth, six of them with criminal records, commandeered the ferry in the last week of March and ordered its captain to head for Florida, United States. The boat was stranded on the high seas as it ran out of fuel and the hijackers threatened to kill the hostages, including two French tourists. The Cuban security forces managed to rescue the hostages and arrest the hijackers.

A few days earlier, a Cuban passenger plane had been hijacked to Florida by a Cuban national armed with a grenade. Not surprisingly, the hijacker has been treated leniently by a Miami court; he will become eligible for residency rights in the U.S. within a few months. The Cuban plane, meanwhile, has not been allowed to return along with the passengers and the crew. The U.S. authorities are demanding a hefty amount towards parking and handling fee.

When Cuba justifiably charged the U.S. with adopting double standards on the issue of terrorism, Washington alleged that Havana was not taking airport security seriously. The Bush administration and the influential right-wing Cuban exile lobby in Miami have been virtually instigating Cuban citizens to break the law. Anti-state activities increased after U.S. diplomat James Cason took over the American Interest Section based in the Swiss embassy premises in Havana. The Cuban Interest Section in the U.S. operates out of the Swiss embassy in Washington. Diplomatic links between the two countries were snapped soon after the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

The head of the American Interest Section, who looks after the consular affairs of his country, has been given the freedom to travel throughout the island nation without prior permission from the Cuban authorities. However, his Cuban counterpart in Washington is not allowed to go beyond 30 km from the U.S. capital. The movements of Cuban diplomats are monitored in the U.S. The Cuban government has gone out of its way to be friendly with the Bush administration after the events of September 11, 2001, hoping to open a new chapter in bilateral relations.

Cuba had been subjected to serious acts of terrorism, including numerous attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, in the past 40 years. Most of these plots were hatched in the U.S. After September 11, the Cuban authorities unilaterally handed over to the Bush administration intelligence files relating to terrorist activities affecting the U.S. Cuban Intelligence has been able to amass a wealth of information about the activities of Latin American drug cartels and terrorist groups. However, the Bush administration, after acting on the basis of some of the information, publicly stated that the intelligence data provided by Havana were of no use. For obvious reasons, the Bush administration was not interested in cooperating with Cuba to fight terrorism.

IT was clear from the beginning that Cason was a man with a mission. Since his arrival in Havana last August, the diplomat has frequently entertained so-called dissident intellectuals, journalists and anti-government activists at his residence. He has gone to the extent of allowing dissident journalists to use his residence for training sessions and organising seminars. He appeared at public meetings with these counter-revolutionaries. Cason has been the only foreign diplomat to attend a public meeting of the dissidents. He hailed their efforts to "organise a transition to democracy" - a catch phrase for counter-revolutionary activities. Cuban officials say that the dissidents number only a few hundred people.

Among those sentenced now is "independent economist" Oscar Espinoza, a regular correspondent of the Central Intelligence Agency-funded Radio Marti, which broadcasts from Miami. The dissidents have floated various groups, all financed by Washington. Cuban agents had penetrated the highest echelons of these groups. They also have videotapes and other incriminating material showing the so-called dissidents accepting cash, fax machines and food from the American Interest Section.

Fidel Castro recently called Cason "a bully with diplomatic immunity". The Cuban authorities initially tolerated Cason's activities as the U.S. Congress and public opinion were overwhelmingly in favour of normalising relations with Cuba. The majority in Congress now feels that the time has come to ease travel and trade restrictions on Cuba. Bush, however, is deeply indebted to the Cuban exile lobby in Florida for his election to the Presidency. His brother Jeb Bush was re-elected Governor with the help of Cuban exile groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). The Bush administration is packed with officials who have made a career out of destabilising Cuba and tightening the economic blockade. Bush's advisers want to retain their grip on the Cuban votes in Florida.

Cason's machinations may have helped the Bush administration to achieve some of its short-term goals. The Rupert Murdoch-controlled sections of the media in the U.S. went into a frenzy in heaping calumny on the Cuban authorities. After the recent court verdicts, the U.S. Congress voted 414 to 0 for a resolution that urged Cuba to release all prisoners and called on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to condemn the trials and the arrests. Many European countries whose relations with Cuba were getting warmer also criticised Havana. Some Latin American countries, such as Chile, Uruguay and Peru, joined in the anti-Cuban chorus. Incidentally, leaders who currently occupy top jobs in some of these Latin American countries were political refugees in Cuba in the 1970s.

Cuban officials say that getting Cuba condemned for human rights violations at the U.N. forum and alienating it from the European Union (E.U.), were two important goals of the Bush administration. It has been trying to pressure the E.U. into keeping Cuba out of the "Cotonou Agreement". Membership in this group would have given Cuba easier access to hard currency loans from multilateral financial institutions.

However, the Cuban authorities were forced to take tough measures to curb the activities of fifth columnists. Some of those recently sentenced to life terms were guilty of passing on official secrets to the U.S.

A Canadian company in Cuba had rented a house belonging to one of the Cuban exiles living in the U.S. A case was filed in a court in the U.S. against the company based on information provided by Cubans in the pay of the U.S. government. The court found the company guilty of "trafficking in confiscated property". Cuban officials say that such activities by Cuban nationals only help strengthen the American economic blockade on their country. Under Cuban law, it is illegal for citizens to distribute U.S. propaganda material that either strengthens the U.S. economic blockade or disturbs the internal security of the country.

The CANF has played an important role in encouraging and financing terrorism in Cuba. It financed a recent attempt to blow up a monument for Che Guevara. Cuban officials say that espionage and terrorism are interconnected. According to them, the dissidents encourage Cubans to hijack boats and planes while Washington refuses to issue visas to those Cubans who want to visit the U.S. Washington had signed a treaty with Havana agreeing to issue 50,000 visas annually to Cubans. The Bush administration has not fulfilled its treaty obligations. Fewer than 50 per cent of the promised visas have been issued.

Cuba's Minister for Foreign Affairs Felipe Perez Roque told the media in the second week of April that the hostility of the U.S. government towards Cuba had "visibly increased" after Bush assumed office. He pointed out that the Bush administration had in top positions 20 prominent officials closely associated with the right-wing Cuban exile community. He said that President Bush had been repaying the debts he owed extremist organisations in Florida by intensifying the economic blockade and encouraging illegal immigration. To illustrate his point, Roque said that there had been seven air and sea hijackings in the last seven months. He said the U.S. government's practice of receiving hijackers from Cuba as heroes and giving them asylum had encouraged such incidents.

Roque showed video footage and photos, besides receipts for payments made by top American institutions to their Cuban agents. He also said that USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, was funding the counter-revolutionaries. The agency recently admitted before a congressional subcommittee that it had disbursed more than $22 million from 1997 in its efforts to curtail Cuban sovereignty.

Roque said that he was surprised by the reaction of Spain and of some European politicians to the trial and convictions by the Cuban court. He said they had not reacted to atrocities committed against prisoners in the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, or against the massacre of Iraqi civilians during the invasion.

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